China’s Last Line of Defense

The Tragedy of the Great Wall

Image Description: Rolling green hills and a white smog cover the frame. There is a clear line across the top of the hills that is the Great Wall with medieval looking brick towers.

The mountains of China are certainly impressive monuments jutting into the sky, but the forbidding wall that ghosts their crests contrasts with the normally peaceful landscape. Seeming to rise from the mountainsides themselves, the Great Wall stands as a reminder of China’s past battles and present culture. Covered in horse tracks, watchtowers, and shelters, the fortresses on the path stand as grim reminders of wars in the past (UNESCO). From its original construction to its current collapse, the Wall has inspired songs and legends worldwide. The wall seems to stretch into infinity, a never-ending barrier and defense rising from nature itself. The Chinese know this structure as 长城 (chang cheng),or the wall that goes on forever. The wall’s might has withstood armies and time alike, but not all of the structure is the stone façade that is usually pictured. Although the wall itself is an amazing feat of engineering, over 2,455 miles of the structure are crude trenches or natural barriers like rivers that have been blended into the construction. Around fifty percent of the wall has already disappeared, and another thirty percent is decaying as organizations still battle to preserve this global treasure (National Geographic). The monument has seen dynasties rise and fall, but its current threat is now the nation it has protected for hundreds of years. The history of the Wall’s purpose and historical presence help us understand the measures that are currently being taken to preserve this global icon. In this paper, I will discuss why and how the wall was originally built, the Ming Dynasty that strengthened and completed the wall, and the current measures taken by the Chinese to protect this monument.

Protection of a New Nation

Although there is not one, single, dynasty that built the wall, its beginning construction is usually credited to the Qin dynasty. First made up of piles of earth and stone, the Great Wall known today was originally a collection of several small ramparts. The Warring States period (475–271 BCE) saw the beginning of construction of the Great Wall, before unification by the Qin (Williams 76). China was originally composed of several warring city-state-like areas. Each ruler had erected their own barriers to protect their area from invading forces. Before the Qin dynasty, one single wall was both impractical and improbable. The Qin were a leading force in the Asia, and when they conquered enough land and kingdoms, they established the Qin dynasty in the area that is now known as the China. When the Qin dynasty finally unified China, they combined the area’s first attempts at defense in the 3rd century BC into a blend of one wall that would protect the empire from invasion (“Great Wall of China”). When the Qin dynasty began, the primary threat to the new country was attack from the Mongols. The nomadic warriors could not be pinned down to a specific location, so they couldn’t be conquered. They seemed to come from nowhere, galloping in on horses with their longbows to pillage wherever they went. The dynasty took the walls that had previously been used as defense against other warring states and strengthened them to defend the new nation from northern tribes (Smith 103). Although their idea was noble, the feat they undertook was much more difficult than they could have imagined.

The walls of China stretched miles across the country, interlacing with rivers, mountains, and gorges. When it was finally connected, the Great Wall traced Northern China approximately 1,500 miles in its entirety (“Great Wall of China”). Although its duration is impressive, the wall is not uniform throughout its length. Because of its stretch, good materials were not always on hand for workers. Since the need for protection was so urgent, actual construction of the original wall was fairly haphazard. The wall was built from whatever materials were available in the area. Workers would use whatever stone, bricks, dirt, and glue they could either make or find. According to Smith, “the mortar used to bond the stones was made from rice flour” (Smith 102). Since the need for protection from the Mongols spanned several centuries, China’s greatest project, and the one with the most manpower, soon became the wall. From the East the wall is stone and brick, whereas from the west it is comprised of tapered piles of earth. (“Great Wall of China”). Built over several dynasties, the wall is said to have claimed one million people’s lives from dangerous working conditions.

Image Description: A hill with old fashioned brick stairs climbing the side. Guard towers rise out of the white smog.

As the dynasties of China began to stabilize, they found more need for security from the North. The Mongols continued to threaten the safety of the growing empire, and measures needed to be taken to protect the nation and the emperor. With nomadic incursions threatening from the North, and other states exploring into Qin territory, the walls continued to grow as a military defense (Williams 76). In order to discourage invaders, the Qin created extensions of China’s impressive mountains, which served as natural defensives already. To keep soldiers on watch, the wall was also modified to house warriors year-round. To compensate for the military forces on the wall, it included watchtowers, guard stations, and raised road for troops and transport (Smith 102). Cresting the mountains, the fortresses make the wall almost appear as a crown on the peaks of China’s scenery. Averaging 25 feet high, 15 to 30 feet thick at the base, and sloping to a 12 feet width at the top, the wall would have appeared incredibly formidable to invading northern tribes. Its presence was a force to be reckoned with, which the Ming dynasty used to leave a lasting legacy of their rule.

The True Creation of an Icon

Although the beginnings of the Great Wall were in the Qin dynasty, the Ming dynasty created the modern wall tourists see today. After the Mongols successfully invaded and took over China, the wall was left to rot in the sun. However, when the Ming overthrew the Mongol empire, the new dynasty recognized the importance of rebuilding and maintaining their greatest defense against the Mongols. As Pingfang states, “the parts of the Great Wall that we see above ground today, which stretch from Jiayuguan in the west to Shanhaiguan in the east…were all constructed in the Ming period” (Pingfang 259). Because of the wall’s state of decay, it almost had to be completely rebuilt. A real defense was needed against invasions, so the construction began. The stonework associated with the wall today was not even laid until the fourteenth century. In fact, a majority of the present wall dates from 1368–1644. (UNESCO). The construction had to completely redesign the wall to truly fortify and protect the mountains it guarded. According to Williams, “this period saw the addition of those stone-faced walls that most people envisage when the Great Wall is mentioned, and their extension to the sea” (Williams 77). There is so little of the original, Pre-Ming dynasty wall left that tourists will travel far outside of the city to see un-reconstructed areas. All tourist sections of the wall are remnants of the Ming dynasty.

A Lasting Symbol

Although the wall represents years of war and death, it is still an enormous symbol of Chinese culture, heritage, and history. Its cultural importance stems from both ancient and modern influences. The Wall has captured the hearts of visionaries and artist alike (Smith 103). The wall’s scale and mystique has left a lasting impression on everyone who has visited it. Artists such as Voltaire even compared the wall with the magnificence of the Great Pyramids. The symbol leaves visitors awed by China’s past military and engineering success while also presenting the strength of Chinese culture today. It also was a source of Chinese nationalism, inspiring unification of the nation after Mao Zedong’s death (Smith). The great leader’s death struck the nation, but the reminder of their past unification became the new symbol of solidarity for the country. Additionally, the Wall’s historical importance has led to international attraction from tourists and history buffs. Designated a World Heritage site in 1987, The Great Wall draws tourists with its unique cultural, historical, and national importance to the Chinese people (Su, Ming, and Wall 1068). It is understandable that the wall is considered a great wonder of the modern world. In fact, its 2007 designation as a member of the New 7 Wonders of the World has earned China “[$7.432 Billion] in increased tourism, and which inspired the 2009 visit from US President Barack Obama” (Smith). A representation of the great force of Chinese culture and nationalism, it has earned global recognition of its importance as an artifact of human ingenuity.

Image Description: In front of frame is a crumbling wall with white glue like mortar between the bricks. In the background are green, tree covered hills with further extensions of the wall disappearing into white smog.

The global recognition of the wall has sparked interest to preserve what is left of the structure. Its importance as both a global and Chinese symbol makes it a valuable piece of history. As Su, Ming, and Wall state, “World Heritage designation represents the global recognition of the significance of the site and the international desire to preserve it” (Su, Ming, and Wall 1082). Although the rest of the world maybe interested in preserving the wall, it seems like China itself is not. The problem with preserving the wall is that it is such a spread-out structure it is hard to determine who should be in charge of managing it. Because China has such a vast history it is difficult to track and care for the massive number of historical artifacts the nation contains. The government, overwhelmed with relics, handed over jurisdiction of icons like the Great Wall to county authorities twenty years ago (Hilary du Cros 181). Individual jurisdictions taking charge of specific sections creates a lack of overall quality restoration control for the wall as a whole. Along with no real human effort to defend the wall, citizens have been taking parts of the structure to use in other building projects. Good quality materials are in high demand for the world’s most populated nation, and no one is protecting the structure from bandits. Furthermore, “wind erosion is playing a big part in its deterioration. Sandstorms have reduced part of the Wall at Ganzu to [6.6 ft] in height, while heavy rain has recently washed away a [98.4 ft] mud section in the Hebei province” (Smith 103).

Another problem with renovation is that the Chinese officials would rather completely remake the wall than build on what currently exists and turn their section into a mass tourism site. Because tourism in China is a growing industry, the government is encouraging fast money alternatives to help the economy. While this would help the Chinese economy, “not every section of the Wall within reach of a road should be presented to visitors in this way, particularly as there already seems to be a backlash developing against this type of attraction amongst some international tourists” (Hilary du Cros). The history of the stones themselves is being ripped away with fake facades and cheap tourism is thrust in their place. Although tourism in China is growing, the nation may see a sharp decline is it continues to violate its culture and history.

Image Description: Framed by a brick archway is a view of green hills covered with trees. The Great Wall stretches far into the distance and into the white smog.


The Great Wall has an incredible history from its original construction, to its reconstruction under the Ming, and finally to its current preservation today. Unfortunately, even though it holds incredible amounts of historical and cultural importance, the Wall is not being properly preserved as a cultural heritage site. Even sections that are being restored are not built with original materials, but with fake stones and modern glue. The scale of the wall is daunting to care for, but after visiting un-restored sections of the wall myself the devastation of renovation to this site is already clear. During my visits I would see mounds of plastic bottles and trash littering the path which greatly detract from the amazing views seen from the tops of guard towers. Around the entrances are gauntlets of tourist stores and attractions, distracting from the majesty that sits at the top of the climb. A veil of smog coating the air makes it extremely difficult to breathe while making the already lengthy climb. The wall’s ability to bring China together as a nation has inspired the world’s respect of China’s culture, but without true preservation the wall can also show the inadequacy of the current leadership to respect their nation’s past.

Works Cited

Smith, Nick. “Classic Project.” Engineering & Technology (17509637) 7.12 (2013): 102–103. Print.

“Great Wall of China.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2013): 1–1. Print.

Hilary du Cros et al. “Cultural Heritage Assets in China as Sustainable Tourism Products: Case Studies of the Hutongs and the Huanghua Section of the Great Wall.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 13.2 (2005): 171–194. Print.

National Geographic. “Great Wall — World Heritage Site — National Geographic.” National Geographic. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

Pingfang, Xu. “The Archaeology of the Great Wall of the Qin and Han Dynasties.” Journal of East Asian Archaeology 3.1/2 (2001): 259–281. Print.

Su, Ming Ming, and Geoffrey Wall. “Global–local Relationships and Governance Issues at the Great Wall World Heritage Site, China.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 20.8 (2012): 1067–1086. EBSCOhost. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

UNESCO. “The Great Wall.” — UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

Williams, Alan. “The Great Wall of China by Claire Roberts and Geremie R Barmie.” Art Book 16.3 (2009): 76–77. EBSCOhost. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

They/Them Pronouns | 中文名字: 柯梅 | Intelligence Specialist & Diversity Advocate |

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